How to Identify Antique Wooden Furniture

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. It's easy to spot an antique by the drawers, because joints weren't machine-cut until about 1860. If it has only a few dovetail joints, with pins narrower than the dovetails, then the joint was made by hand.

When you want to refinish old wooden furniture, the best place to look is the family storeroom: Check the attic, basement, garage, or wherever unwanted furniture has collected. You may also discover a real antique or two -- pieces handed down through the family for generations. Other good sources are secondhand stores, household auctions, and garage sales. With furniture, as with anything else, one person's junk is another another's treasure.

Antique stores are a good place to find furniture to refinish, but expect to pay for these pieces. If you're interested in antiques, recent or old, research before you buy anything. Real antiques and many reproductions are extremely valuable, but there are also many imitations. If you aren't sure an antique is really antique, pay for an expert opinion. Never buy an antique, or try to refinish it, until you know what you have. In this article, we'll discuss how to assess whether a piece of furniture is an antique and whether it is worth saving through the refinishing process.

When is Old an Antique?

There are many different styles of furniture, and each type has distinguishing features. For the most part, the furniture you'll encounter will probably be limited to traditional English and American Colonial styles; you aren't likely to find a Louis XV chair at a garage sale. The basic English and American styles run the gamut from ornate to severely functional, from massive to delicate. Just remember, if you like it, the style is right.

Technically, an antique is a piece of furniture with special value because of its age, particularly those pieces embellished with fine artistry. The age factor is subjective: general antique stores label objects 50 years or older as antiques. Fine antique dealers consider objects 150 years and older to be antique.

In the East, an antique is Queen Anne or earlier; in the West, it's any piece of furniture that came across the mountains in a wagon. A southern antique is a piece made before the Civil War. Wherever you look, it's a sure bet that you won't find a genuine antique from 1500 or 1600. What you may find is a genuine reproduction, and these can be extremely valuable.

There are several ways you can spot an antique. The first giveaway is the joinery; machine-cut furniture wasn't made until about 1860. If the piece has drawers, remove a drawer and look closely where the front and back of the drawer are fastened to the sides of the drawer. If a joint was dovetailed by hand, it has only a few dovetails, and they aren't exactly even; if it has closely spaced, precisely cut dovetails, it was machine-cut. Handmade dovetails almost always indicate a piece made before 1860. 

Look carefully at the bottom, sides, and back of the drawer; if the wood shows nicks or cuts, it was probably cut with a plane, a spokeshave, or a drawknife. Straight saw marks also indicate an old piece. If the wood shows circular or arc-shaped marks, it was cut by a circular saw, not in use until about 1860.

Exact symmetry is another sign that the piece was machine-made. On handmade furniture, rungs, slats, spindles, rockers, and other small-diameter components are not uniform. Examine these parts carefully; slight differences in size or shape are not always easy to spot. A real antique is not perfectly cut; a reproduction with the same components is, because it was cut by machine.

The finish on the wood can also date the piece. Until Victorian times, shellac was the only clear surface finish; lacquer and varnish were not developed until the mid-1800s. The finish on a piece made before 1860 is usually shellac; if the piece is very old, it may be oil, wax, or milk paint. Fine old pieces are often French-polished, a variation of the shellac finish. A lacquer or varnish finish is a sure sign of later manufacture.

Testing a finish isn't always possible in a dealer's showroom, but if you can manage it, identify the finish before you buy. Test the piece in an inconspicuous spot with denatured alcohol; if finish dissolves, it's shellac. If the piece is painted, test it with ammonia; very old pieces may be finished with milk paint, which can be removed only with ammonia. If the piece of furniture is very dirty or encrusted with wax, clean it first with a mixture of denatured alcohol, white vinegar, and kerosene, in equal parts.

The wood itself is the final clue. Very early furniture -- before 1700 -- is mostly oak, but from 1700 on, mahogany and walnut were widely used. In America, pine has always been used because it's easy to find and easy to work; better furniture may be made with maple, oak, walnut, cherry, or mahogany. But because the same woods have always been favored for furniture, workmanship and finish are probably a better indicator of age than the wood itself.

 

Let's look at the differences between basic English and American furniture styles in the next section.

Older Furniture Styles

©2006 Publications International Chair and table legs exhibit many of the features that distinguish furniture styles; the leg is usually a good indicator of type. Early Georgian furniture is based on Queen Anne; later styles show classic influence.

Most old wooden furniture you will encounter, most likely, will be either traditional English or American Colonial styles. Let's review the special characteristics of both popular types.

Basic English Furniture Styles

The following criteria will help you determine if your old furniture is an English-made antique.

Queen Anne

Early 18th century

Woods used: Walnut, also, cherry, mahogany, maple and oak.

Description: Graceful curves, curved (cabriole) leg, with no rungs or stretchers; minimal decoration, very simple; scallop-shell mount.

Georgian Chippendale

Late 18th century

Woods used: Mahogany

Description: Elaboration of Queen Anne; ornate carvings, either delicate or bold; many themes, including rococo, English, Chinese, Greek classic; intricate chair backs.

Georgian Adam

Late 18th century

Woods used: Mahogany

Description: Straight, slender lines; heavy Greek classic influence; fluted columns; delicate low-relief carvings, especially draped garlands.

Georgian Hepplewhite

Late 18th century

Woods used: Mahogany; satinwood inlay/veneer

Desscription: Based on Adam; straight tapered legs; shield- oval-, or heart-shaped chair backs; less decoration; delicate carvings.

Georgian Sheraton

Late 18th century

Woods used: Mahogany

Description: Similar to Hepplewhite and other Georgian styles; straighter, more upright lines; Greek classic influence; lyre-shaped chair backs; inlays and thick veneers.

Regency

Early 19th century

Woods used: Mahogany

Description: Simple, bold curves; smaller scale; more functional, more intimate; colors used.

Victorian

Late 19th century

Woods used: Mahogany, walnut, rosewood

Description: heavy, massive, substantial; dark finish; clumsy dessign; ornate carvings and decorations; marble tops used.

Basic American Furniture Styles

The following criteria will help you determine if your old furniture is an American-made antique.

Early Colonial   

17th century   

Woods used: Pine; birch, maple, walnut   

Description: Hybrid of English styles; square lines; solid construction; heavy decoration and carving.

Late Colonial

18th century

Woods used: Pine; mahogany

Description: Imported wood; interpretations of Queen Anne and Georgian styles; formal. Windsor chair.

Federal

Early 19th century

Woods used: Mahogany, cherry

Description: Interpretations of Georgian styles; Duncan Phyfe variations of Sheraton style; some French influence; heavier versions of English styles. Boston rocker, Hitchcock chair.

Pennsylvania Dutch

Late 17th to mid-19th century

Woods used: Maple, pine, walnut, fruitwoods

Description: Solid, plain; Germanic style; colorful painted Germanic decorations.

Shaker

Late 18th to mid-19th century

Woods used: Pine; maple

Description: Severely functional; no decoration; superior craftsmanship; excellent design.

Assessing Furniture Quality

Is it worth saving?

With any piece of furniture, the practicality of refinishing eventually comes down to one question: is it worth saving? Once you've found a piece you like, and decided what it is, look at it again to see what kind of shape it's in. Most old furniture is fairly sturdy, or it wouldn't have survived; but chances are it's also taken a beating over the years. Are the legs even? Is the piece sturdy? Does it wobble? Do doors and drawers work properly? Are the joints well made, and have they separated?

Assess the amount of work you'll have to do to restore the piece. Is hardware complete and tight? Are hinges adequate? Are drawer guides or dust panels missing? Is the wood covered with many coats of paint? If the piece of furniture is in fairly good condition, or if it's definitely an antique, it will be worth your time and effort to refinish. If the wood is broken or badly damaged, there are parts missing, or the joinery is inferior, don't waste your time unless the piece is an antique.

How bad does the damage have to be before it makes refinishing impractical? This depends on how much work you're willing to do, but there are a few guidelines for decision-making.

First, look for dry rot or insect damage. Dry rot cannot be repaired; the rotted component must be replaced, and this is a custom job. Insect damage, if the entire piece of wood is not affected, can sometimes be repaired; if this is the problem, restoration may be worth the effort. To check for dry rot and insect damage, push an ice pick or a knife blade into the wood. If there's little or no resistance, the wood is damaged.

Broken parts are sometimes repairable, but not always. If a part is split or wobbly, it can probably be repaired quickly. If it's broken off flush at the joint, the job is more difficult, because a replacement part must usually be custom-made to match the rest of the piece. This can involve expensive equipment or a professional woodworker, and the piece of furniture may not be worth the cost or the effort.

On veneered pieces, the condition of the veneer is very important. Has the veneer separated from the base, or is it damaged? Are there big pieces missing? Separated veneer is easy to reglue if it's intact, but replacing damaged or missing veneer can be expensive. If a large section of veneer must be replaced, the cost may be prohibitive.

If the piece is structurally sound, don't be discouraged by repairable problems. Wobbly joints can be re-glued; missing hardware can be replaced. Coats and coats of old paint, lacquer, or shellac may be concealing beautiful wood -- walnut, cherry, oak, birch, maple. If you like the piece, if it's worth saving, and especially if it's an antique, refinishing is worth all the time and patience you'll put into it.

So do your homework and learn what is and isn't an antique, what are the basics of style, and finally, whether your antique is worth even saving before you invest the time, money and energy to get the job done.